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Micheal Tilson Thomas

Keeping Score: Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz
Micheal Tilson Thomas narrating and conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Keeping Score: Symphony No. 5 by Dimitri Shostakovitch
MichealTilson Thomas narrating and conducting the San Francisco Orchestra

Keeping Score: Holidays Symphony by Charles Ives
Micheal Tilson Thomas narrating and conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Review By Max Westler

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  If anyone is going to attract a younger generation to the seemingly lost cause of classical music, it will probably be the dashing, charismatic and enormously talented new conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel. But you can't blame MichealTilson Thomas for trying. Like his mentor Leonard Bernstein, MTT is a natural-born educator, at once enthusiastic and eloquent, and (also like Bernstein) he never misses an opportunity to speak on behalf of the music he loves. So here are the first three entries in a series of DVDs, each of which attempts to reveal (and dramatize) the inner life of a particular score. Certainly one could think of no better music to begin with than Berlioz's SymphonieFantastique, the Shostakovitch Fifth Symphony, and Charles Ives' Holidays Symphony; for each is informed by an overt (Berlioz, Ives) or covert (Shostakovitch) narrative, a compelling historical, biographical, or political context.

Each of the programs is divided into two parts: a lecture/demonstration that leads to a formal analysis of the score in question, followed by a live performance.

The productions are all PBS-style documentaries that alternate MTT discussing the score with visual examples, and (sometimes) dramatizations that illustrate the musical points he's trying to make. I certainly didn't mind MTT turning up in the bedroom of the young Hector Berlioz or at the desk Charles Ives' study where he composed the music we're about to hear. However, I have to admit that I sometimes found the literalism of this approach oppressive. It seems that every note required a visual correspondence. In talking about a passage in the last movement of the Shostakovitch Fifth, MTT says, "it sounds to me like peasants toppling a monument." And sure enough, we see Soviet-era newsreel footage of peasants toppling a monument.

Of course, one could also argue that I'm not exactly the target audience for these productions. It's also true that all three of these works do indeed have an explicit programmatic content, that the busy visuals are simply a means to an end. Certainly nothing detracts from MTT's cogent analysis. In each case, his eloquence, charm, and easy-going, unpretentious authority make sense of the music in ways that are subtle, surprising, and consistently illuminating. In his discussion of the Shostakovitch Fifth, for example, MTT demonstrates exactly how the composer created a symphony that seemed to conform to socialist-realist principles, but that was at the same time a subversive and devastating portrait of Stalinist culture. Along the way, he compares the first movement of the symphony to that of the Beethoven Fifth, rescores the opening of the fourth movement to let us hear how Mahler would have made it sound. In both cases, music that is genuinely heroic and triumphant highlights the degree to which Shostakovitch calls into question the lofty sentiments it seems to be presenting.

Just last month I was complaining at how little MTT has recorded over the past decade. His now completed Mahler series has been the only official release on the San Francisco Symphony's own label. But here are three terrific, live performances of non-Mahler symphonies by MTT and his orchestra. It's certainly ironic that after talking about the intense, emotional convulsions that eventually produced the Symphonie Fantastique, MTT's performance of the music is tightly organized, almost classical. Still, there are many expressive gestures that celebrate the strangeness of the music, its depth of feeling, its revolutionary sound. Appropriately, in the last two movements, MTT pulls out all the stops, and the results are thrilling. The Shostakovitch Fifth comes from a "Proms" concert, and it is white hot from beginning to end, as convincing and powerful a performance as you could hope for. I never thought I'd hear the third movement played with more intensity than Bernstein, but here it is.

For me the best of these (if you're only going to shop for one) is the Ives. It makes perfect sense to situate Ives in the transcendental company of Thoreau, Emerson, and (especially) Whitman. I haven't heard MTT's first version of the work (with the Concertgebouw Orchestra), but I thought the other symphonies in that series a little underpowered and too genteel. One wouldn't say that about this performance, for it captures every shifting mood-swing in this ever-shifting music. In the more raucous episodes especially, there's a joy, a sense of total abandon, that's truly exhilarating. In his lecture MTT convincingly suggests that there is no greater American symphony than Ives' Holidays Symphony. His performance proves it.

It is worth noting that these DVDs are also available on Blu-ray; and though the copy I heard wasn't, the sound was nevertheless full, rich, and exciting. Other titles in the series include scores by Tchaikovsky (his Fourth Symphony), Beethoven (the Eroica), Stravinsky (Le Sacre Du Printempts, of course), and Copland (the chamber version of Appalachian Spring). All the live performances have been released separately on disc.

To those with limited resources who might balk at the expense of collecting all these titles, I suggest you pester your local librarian, or call your local PBS station. Many stations, but (alas) not mine, have been showing the series. I also suggest that any of these (or all of them) would make the perfect Christmas gift for any young person who's expressed even the most fleeting interest in classical music. This "Keeping Score" series might just be what it takes to push them over the edge.





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